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Adams' Analysis - Top 15 Shows of 2017

21 Dec 2017

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It’s the time of year for lists. Christmas shopping lists, wishlists for Father Christmas. Oh, and end of year lists ranking entertainment across various fields.

Last week, SpoilerTV published its team’s collective top 20 shows of 2017, as voted for by nearly 50 team members here on the site. Subsequently, voting was opened up to readers to choose their top ten for the year, the results of which will be published on New Year’s Eve.

For this week’s Adams’ Analysis column - the last of 2017 - I thought I’d share my top 15 shows of the year. This was a tough list to make, not only in ranking the contenders (*) but working out quite where the threshold line should be drawn. A top ten felt too constrictive, while a list of 17, which I’d initially pencilled on an iPhone note, seemed too bloated. So here’s a top 15, appearing in chronological order because there’s little need for suspense - to quote Monica Geller, this isn’t a courtroom drama.

(*) Or, at least, the shows not in the top three, which had been set in stone for some time.

1. The Leftovers

There’s a good case to be made that The Leftovers is the best show of this decade to have premiered in this decade. Its third and final season was, like season two before it, a masterful, perfect piece of artistic genius. Weird and wonderful wouldn’t even begin to cover what it did in its final eight hours - a Perfect Strangers-themed hour featuring Mark Linn-Baker, an episode set on an orgy boat with God on-board, an afterlife-set outing with two Justin Therouxs. All the while, it was hauntingly beautiful in every discipline. With a cast of stunning performers, not least Carrie Coon, every moment felt real and not a single emotional beat was skipped. For all that naysayers could criticise its abstract nature and the lack of any concrete answers as to the origins of the Great Departure, the execution was glorious to watch. Plus, The Leftovers produced what was probably both the best shot and best quote of the year.

2. Better Call Saul

The longer Better Call Saul runs, the further from Breaking Bad it gets. Yet season three, its best to date, pulled in a whole bunch of old faces to complement what is now a show that, in its own right, is utterly unmissable television. In the feud between brothers McGill, Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) and Chuck (Michael McKean), the core of Saul is one worthy of investment, with an emotional resonance perhaps deeper and more relatable than any of Heisenberg’s. In the fifth episode, “Chicanery”, viewers were treated to one of the best hours of the year with McKean’s subsequent snub for a Supporting Actor Emmy baffling. The story of Kim (Rhea Seehorn, whose strong performances often go under the radar outside of critic circles) keeping Jimmy somewhat in the light continues to ground the series, while bringing aboard famed villain Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) gave new focus and intrigue to Mike’s (Jonathan Banks) arc. This is a well-oiled, incredible drama. It may never eclipse Breaking Bad, but it sure is pushing for that.

3. Halt and Catch Fire

There is no hint of irony lost in the symbolism of Halt and Catch Fire, a show based on the tech surge of the 1980s and 1990s, but one which succeeds largely due to its human elements - the connections between people are more important than the ones on a hard drive, if you will. As the show came to an end in its fourth season, it spared no expense in producing some of the most impactful moments across its run. Criticism of pacing issues in the first half of the season felt unnecessary, but by the second half Halt had a very clear vision of exactly how it would come to a close: with a gut-punch and satisfaction. The antepenultimate hour, “Goodwill”, is an exercise in grief and pain, giving the material for some standout performances from everyone involved. With Kerry Bishé and Mackenzie Davis, Halt is able to provide a remarkable dynamic that is easy to become heavily invested in, and pays off four years of development between them in a beautiful series finale. This is one of the true underrated shows, and boy, was it top tier.

4. Legion

FX’s foray into the Marvel universe went swimmingly, with Legion an impressive feat of twisty storytelling that really utilised all of its potential: the budget was clear to see, the sci-fi element given from the comic background made weirdness a staple, Noah Hawley’s tone turned it into something that was both dark and had levity. Legion worked at least in part because its focus was less the superhero elements than it was the mental state of its characters, whose development was terrific throughout. Through the writing and some excellent performances - Dan Stevens, Rachel Keller and Aubrey Plaza were especially outstanding - this show was transformed into something more than just the standard Marvel production line fare.

5. Sweet/Vicious

Sweet/Vicious began as something of a light procedural with a very dark basis that, for the first few episodes, was underutilised. But by the time the show rolled around into its 2017 episodes, things took a turn: the vigilantism of Jules (Eliza Bennett) and Ophelia (Taylor Dearden) remained, but the focus shifted from ‘target-of-the-week’ into exploring the former’s sexual assault, the ramifications of it for her and all those around her, and how the system in place for reporting such crimes fails the victims who need it. There were several occasions in which a stress ball wouldn’t go amiss to assist in viewing it, and where the highest compliment possible is: “That was awful to watch.” Bennett’s magnetic performance anchored the heavy material; Jules’ struggle was that much harder to watch thanks to her superb display. Sweet/Vicious was the kind of powerful, affecting television that Peak TV has made possible and that we, as a society, absolutely need. It is a real shame that there will be no more of it.

6. The Americans

You could probably argue that The Americans’ fifth season was the weakest of the show, but that does little to demean it, for it remains one of the very best things television has to offer. Sure, at times the series’ typically slow pace can be felt, and the plot involving the pest-resistant wheat does take too long to fully materialise - despite it giving Matthew Rhys an opportunity for one of his best scenes of the year - but there was plenty to love, from Paige’s (Holly Taylor) training to Henry’s (Keidrich Sellati) increased presence. Matters outside the Jennings household remained riveting, too, with Stan’s (Noah Emmerich) moral dilemmas and new girlfriend a major part of the season. Though creators Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg said this wasn’t intended as a set-up season for next year’s final outing, it certainly felt that way at times. Not that it was a bad thing.

7. One Day at a Time

Though the first two episodes aren’t especially great, One Day at a Time very quickly transcends into a terrifically wonderful show. The season is aided by the loose story arc that binds all thirteen half-hours - with each episode a step closer to Elena’s (Isabella Gomez) Quinceañera - in that there is a sense of direction, but One Day at a Time succeeds in large part due to its non-comedic moments. From the fifth episode onwards, at least one, often long, scene per half-hour shifts in tone to be emotionally heavy, while the finale is almost entirely devoid of laughs. It is powerful, moving television, and an aspect that enhances this series immensely, particularly when the comedy that does exist is not perfect; Rita Moreno is superb, but only about two-thirds of the jokes land overall, and very few are side-splittingly funny. At times, it does feel like the show leans a little too heavily on quite literally telling its statements on the world rather than showing it, but the material is handled so sensitively that looking past that criticism is pretty easy. This was a real joy to watch.

8. Last Week Tonight

It is perhaps both a blessing and a curse that Last Week Tonight has become such a necessity in 2017. Even aside from the topics of conversation surrounding President Trump’s - “two words that continue to sound revolting together like 'viscous discharge' and 'moist stockings'” - first year in office, John Oliver took in-depth issues facing the general public and turned them into entertaining, compelling news pieces (Oliver maintains the show isn’t journalism, even where all logic from watching it disagrees) that deserved viewing every week. Looking at issues like gerrymandering, net neutrality, vaccine safety, US Border Patrol, forensic evidence, among other things, Last Week Tonight leads the way in talk show programming as Oliver continues to be one of the funniest comics on late-night television.

9. Baskets

Baskets is a television gem that remains highly underrated, even with Louie Anderson having won a Supporting Actor Emmy just over a year ago. This Zach Galiafianakis comedy combines slapstick humour - generally Galiafianakis’ modus operandi here - with wit and occasional self-deprecation, with Anderson’s turn as Chip Baskets’ (Galiafianakis) mother, Christine, generally dry; Christine’s life isn’t treated as the joke, Anderson instead treating her without taking any comedic mileage from the fact that he’s playing a woman. That was a smart move, and as season two begins delving deeper into her life, particularly as Chip faces trouble with the law, his identical twin brother, and the failing of his career as a clown, Anderson shines in getting to Christine’s emotional core. It is a highly impressive show.

10. Brooklyn Nine-Nine

This was, far and away, the best year to date for Brooklyn Nine-Nine, with the latter half of season four - its best season - and the first half of season five capturing the best elements of a show now over one hundred episodes deep. In 2017, Brooklyn was able to take plenty of risks - having Gina (Chelsea Peretti) be hit by a bus, sending two lead characters in Jake (Andy Samberg) and Rosa (Stephanie Beatriz) to prison, exploring sensitive issues like race and sexuality - and was all the better for it. The comedy remains stronger than ever, with Andre Braugher’s continued omission from major award nominations utterly perplexing.

11. Brockmire

If the premise of Brockmire, the IFC show based on a Funny or Die short which follows baseball announcer Jim Brockmire (Hank Azaria) trying to rebuild his career after a vulgar outburst while drunk, was nothing more than a network executive saying, “Get me Chief Wiggum calling baseball and saying the most explicit sentences known to man,” it wouldn’t be surprising. The result is a show truly hysterical. Never would you realise how necessary it is to see Azaria’s range of language until you see it, but below the surface, some superb character work between him and Amanda Peet’s Jules makes for a well-rounded comedy that more people should watch.

12. The Good Place

It was in very early 2017 that The Good Place revealed the comedy twist of the year, with co-creator Michael Schur hinting his latest show is perhaps less Parks and Recreation than it is LOST. In doing so, another layer of genius was added to the series as it was given plenty more scope in terms of future plot. Season two has seen Ted Danson run the show, both within the narrative and from an outside perspective, as Michael’s façade was able to come to an end, allowing Danson to make full use of the immeasurable range he has. He and Kristen Bell - also excellent - are aided by a cast of great performers, perhaps no more so than D’Arcy Carden who, in the second season, has given real emotional weight to Janet while finding a balance with her status as, essentially, a supercomputer in flesh form. Where the other Schur series on this list, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, doesn’t rely much on plot, The Good Place is a very narrative-heavy comedy that manages to weave in unfathomable amounts of jokes, both spoken and - in similar style to The Simpsons - visual.

13. Rick and Morty

Season three kept up the high-quality work that Rick and Morty had produced in the previous two seasons, once again finding a perfect mix between the dark, sincere moments and the outlandishly crazy comedic elements. The show keeps up its almost procedural formula on a weekly basis with connecting threads to be seen everywhere, and each outing provides something new, whether that is Rick becoming a pickle, an episode showing how Rick keeps wiping Morty’s mind, or an episode set in the Citadel of Ricks - the best of the season, and one of the best of the year overall. Its intelligence knows no bounds, the writing is sharp and the voice acting is fantastic.

14. Sneaky Pete

In some way, Sneaky Pete is akin to FX’s Fargo - both series qualify, quite blatantly, as black comedy-dramas, both feature acting showcases across the board, and both have something of a twisty narrative that is always smart. Only Sneaky Pete is perhaps less narratively strong at times, and had a tendency - in the first half of the season, at least - to focus more on the comedy than the drama, mostly as Marius tries to keep his cover intact and steer clear of Winslow (Michael O’Keefe). But there is a real charm to the episodes, which expertly blend those two genres in a way that makes this so entertaining. All of the performers get their due, including a chillingly tremendous threat from Margo Martindale, Peter Gerety’s highly emotional late-season scheme to save the family, and a Breaking Bad “Half Measures”-like speech that Bryan Cranston gets to deliver. That’s not to mention a consistently terrific performance from Giovanni Ribisi. It’s difficult not to wonder how the show can keep up the charades in season two, but what is for sure is that these first ten episodes were great.

15. Game of Thrones

This wasn’t Thrones’ strongest year, despite a terrific pair of episodes in the middle of season seven. Fewer episodes didn’t benefit the show much at all, each hour ultimately feeling overstuffed with plots. The season was elevated, as seems typical now, by moments being better than the sum of their parts. A number of strong performances, especially from Lena Headey once again, helped too, and even when not at its best, Game of Thrones remains a generally very good show.